The 2016 NBA free agent class is a relatively weak crop, featuring few true superstars – especially when compared to the incredible class of 2017. However, there is an incredibly appealing grand prize. The cream of the free agent crop is Kevin Durant. It is rare that such an incredible talent will be up for grabs in the middle of his prime (Durant doesn’t turn 28 until September). There was some trepidation coming into this season after KD missed 55 games in 2014-15 as a result of multiple foot surgeries; however, Durant has quieted those concerns this year. He’s started 54 games this season and the foot hasn’t been an issue. Just as importantly, he’s reestablished himself as a dominant offensive force. Durant is on pace to become the first player in over 20 years to average at least 28 points, eight rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. Per BasketballReference.com, only nine players in the NBA history are part of this exclusive club (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, John Havlicek, Michael Jordan, Bob McAdoo, Oscar Robertson and David Robinson).
There are simply very, very few players in the history of the game who can boast his combination of size and skill. As he showcased during his MVP season in 2013-14, when he averaged an astounding 32 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game, he is a transcendent star when fully healthy.
To his credit, Durant has been able to successfully keep his pending free agent status from becoming a distraction to both himself and his teammates. In the recent past, we’ve seen how madness can be consuming for superstars on the precipice of free agency. However, expect the attention toward Durant to ramp up to unprecedented levels once the Thunder’s season reaches its conclusion. When the 2015-16 campaign comes to a close, and we begin focusing on the offseason, Durant will become the NBA’s hottest commodity and most talked about player.
So, will Durant re-sign with Oklahoma City, or relocate elsewhere, and potentially shift the NBA’s balance of power in the process?
It would be foolish to pretend to have any exclusive insight into KD’s decisions making process. It’s very likely Durant himself hasn’t decided what he’ll do come July, so how could anyone else pretend to know? However, it could be argued that predicting the length of Durant’s next contract does not require going out on a limb. All things considered, it may be safe to assume that Durant will actually decline to sign a long-term deal this summer. Instead, because it makes the most fiscal sense for him to do so, expect KD to follow in the footsteps of LeBron James and sign a two-year contract this summer, which will enable Durant to opt-out in 2017, once again becoming an unrestricted free agent. We’ll break down why this is a safe assumption below.
If we are looking at realistic non-OKC contenders in the Kevin Durant sweepstakes, the Washington Wizards were the early favorites. Durant was born and raised in Washington D.C., and has previously flirted with the idea of returning home. The Wizards have been planning and pining for the opportunity to sell Durant on teaming up with John Wall and Bradley Beal and making the Wiz an Eastern Conference powerhouse. The pitch could be powerful, as a homecoming would have the added bonus of allowing him to escape the stacked Western Conference.
The other team rumored to have peaked Durant’s interest is the Golden State Warriors. The defending champs are in the middle of possibly the greatest regular season in NBA history. The mere idea of Durant joining Steph Curry and company in the Bay Area is enough to send shivers down the spines of the rest of the league. Whether Durant would be content taking a backseat to Curry (who will likely be a back-to-back MVP at that point) remains to be seen. Again, so much can happen between now and then, it’s futile to try and predict how Durant might feel four months from now. Instead of trying to read the tea leaves, let’s instead just look strictly at the numbers.
When Durant hits unrestricted free agency this summer, he will have completed nine NBA seasons. Because he will have between seven and nine years of NBA experience under his belt, he can sign a max contract starting at 30 percent of a team’s total cap. (For those looking for exact figures it is important to note that, per cap expert Larry Coon, “a different cap calculation is used to determine the maximum salaries, which is based on 42.14 percent of projected BRI rather than 44.74 percent. … For this reason the maximum salaries are not actually 25 percent, 30 percent or 35 percent of the cap, and instead are a slightly lower amount.”)
So, with the cap jumping up to a purported $92 million this summer, here is what a max offer (with max allowable 4.5 percent raises) for Durant from either Washington or Golden State would look like:
2016-17: $25.9 million
2017-18: $27.1 million
2018-19: $28.3 million
2019-20: $29.6 million
Sum total of $110.9 million over four NBA seasons
And yes, the Warriors would be able to carve out the necessary cap space to sign Durant without gutting their roster. Trading either the Andre Iguodala or Andrew Bogut (both would have expiring contracts) would create the necessary cap space.
However, if Durant signed a long-term deal with any team other than the Thunder this summer, he’d be leaving money on the table. The starting salary would be the same, but because OKC owns his “Bird Rights,” they would be able to offer 7.5 percent annual raises and a fifth year of guaranteed money. Here is the max offer OKC would be able to present this summer:
2016-17: $25.9 million
2017-18: $27.8 million
2018-19: $29.9 million
2019-20: $32.1 million
2020-21: $34.5 million
Sum total of $150.2 million over five NBA seasons
Now, despite this enormous amount of money, Durant could set himself up for an even more monumental payday by going the “LeBron James route.” This is because the NBA’s salary cap is reportedly set to spike all the way up to $108 million in 2017-18. (League sources have suggested that the actual number may even end up settling somewhere closer to $110 million). In addition, if Durant plays one more season, he will have logged 10 seasons in the NBA. This is important because it bumps him up into the highest possible tier, which means he (still squarely in his prime at just 28 years of age) would then be able to command an initial starting salary at 35% of his team’s salary cap. It’s a perfect storm which would allow him to sign a mind-blowing max contract.
If Durant signed a two-year deal with OKC, with an opt-out in 2017, Durant would make $25.9 million next season and would then opt out. Here is the incredible five-year max deal he’d be able to sign with Oklahoma City in July of 2017:
2017-18: $35.8 million
2018-19: $38.5 million
2019-20: $41.4 million
2020-21: $44.5 million
2021-22: $47.9 million
Sum total of $208.1 million over five NBA seasons
By signing a two-year deal in 2016, and essentially postponing his full max contract, Durant would be able to pocket an extra $58 million. The gap is even wider when compared to signing a max four-year deal with a non-Thunder team this summer. In that scenario, he’d potentially be sacrificing nearly $100 million in guaranteed money.
On the flip side, Durant has dealt with a foot issue, so maybe he would be hesitant to sign only a two-year deal and would prefer to lock in long-term deal as soon as possible? Only time will tell.
It should also be noted that Durant signed a huge contract with Nike in 2014 that supposedly will pay him close to $300 million over the life of that deal. Does having already signed that deal make it more likely he’d be willing to settle for less on-court earnings? Or does it increase the likelihood that he’ll sign for only two years this summer, knowing he has that security blanket courtesy of the Nike deal?
However, it is not just financial advice from his agents that will likely push Durant toward signing a truncated contract with OKC this summer. Another immensely important benefit of becoming a free agent again in 2017 is that it would allow him to sync up his free agency with Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, whose current contracts expire after the 2016-17 season. Arguably the worst-case scenario for Durant would be agreeing to a five-deal this summer with the Thunder, only to see his superstar teammates leave the following year. If KD and Russ entered free agency together in 2017, they could jointly decide whether they wanted to spend the remainder of their prime as a tandem. If Westbrook and/or Ibaka decided to leave Oklahoma City, at least Durant would have that information to help inform his decision before committing the prime of his career to OKC. It would also give him the option of leaving with them, teaming up elsewhere.
When LeBron James signed with Cleveland, it was well known that one of the reasons he didn’t sign the enormous max contract they were offering was because he not only wanted to wait for the cap to spike before locking in his five-year deal; King James also wanted to be able to hold the feet of Cleveland’s front office to the fire, ensuring they didn’t skimp and were willing to spend excessively in order to surround LeBron with the best talent available. Pending superstar free agents have far more leverage than those that are contractually bound to a team for the foreseeable future.
Looking at the big picture, there are several important factors, both financial and otherwise, that could motivate Durant to forgo a long-term contract and sign a two-year deal with OKC instead.
Come July, we’ll find out what Durant decides makes the most sense.
NBA Daily: Pelicans Might Be Better Off Without DeMarcus Cousins
Without DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis has excelled. It might not be a coincidence.
Forget Kawhi Leonard, the most interesting storyline of this NBA summer is going to be DeMarcus Cousins.
By now, if you’ve wondered whether the New Orleans Pelicans would be better off without the talented big man, you’re certainly not alone.
Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.
On Saturday, the Pelicans pulled off an improbable sweep of the third-seeded Blazers in the first round of their best-of-seven playoff series. And while the immediate question that comes to mind is what to make of the Blazers, a similar question can be (and should be) asked of the Pelicans.
Without question, Cousins is one of the most gifted big men the NBA has sen in quite some time, but it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Anthony Davis began to put forth superhuman efforts when Cousins was absent.
Ever heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the brew?
That may be pricisely the case here.
Sure, having good players at your disposal is a problem that most head coach in the league would sign up for, but it takes a special type of player to willingly cede touches and shots in the name of the best interests of the team.
We once had a similar conversation about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, mind you. Those that recognized that Westbrook’s ball dominance and inefficiency took opportunities away from Durant to be the best version of himself once believed that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been wise to pitch Westbrook to New Orleans back when Chris Paul was still manning their perimeter.
For what it’s worth, with Cousins in the lineup, he averaged 18 shots per game. In the 48 games he played this season, the Pelicans were 27-21. With him in the lineup, Davis shot the ball 17.6 times per game and scored 26.5 points per contest.
In the 34 games the Pelicans played without Cousins, Davis’ shot attempts increased fairly significantly. He got 21.9 attempts per contest and similarly increased his scoring output to 30.2 points per game.
Aside from that, Cousins’ presence in the middle made it a tad more difficult for Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to have the pace and space they need to be most effective. With both Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans struggled to consistently string together wins. Without Cousins, they improbably became the first team in the Western Conference to advance to the second round.
That Cousins tore his achilles tendon and is just a few months from becoming an unrestricted free agent combine to make him the most interesting man in the NBA.
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With Chris Paul having decided that the grass was probably greener with James Harden and Mike D’Antoni than it was with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin, the Clippers fulfilled his request to be trade to the Houston Rockets and re-signed Griffin to a five-year max. deal. In doing so, they both gave Griffin a stark reminder of what life in the NBA is like and provided a blueprint for teams to follow when they have a superstar player with whom they believe to have run their course.
The glass half full perspective might be that Davis has simply become a better, healthier, more effective player and that with Cousins, he would have another weapon that could help catapult the Pelicans ever further toward the top of the Western Conference. But the half-empty glass might yield another conclusion.
At the end of the day, although he still hasn’t appeared in a single playoff game, Cousins is regarded as a game-changing talent and is one of the few players available on the free agency market this summer that could justify an annual average salary of $30 million. In all likelihood, the Pelicans will re-sign him for a sum that approaches that, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best move.
In the end, the Clippers traded Griffin for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick and a second round pick. All things considered, it was a great haul for the Clippers when you consider that, just a few months prior, they could have lost Griffin as a free agent and gotten nothing in return.
Remarkably, after seeing Griffin dealt to Detroit, in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on a collision course with the Golden State Warriors. Their health a constant concern, the team will have to deal with the pesky perimeter defense of Holiday and Rondo and versatility and two-way effectiveness of Davis.
Nobody gave New Orleans a chance against Portland, and for sure, not many people are going to believe in their ability to score an upset over the defending champions. But believe it or not, New Orleans has become a different team. And they’ve done so without Cousins.
Indeed, believe it or not, the Clippers gave us a blueprint for what a team should do when it has a superstar who might not be the best long-term fit for their program.
And if the Pelicans were wise, they’d be smart to follow it.
NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams
This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.
This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.
As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.
With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.
Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.
Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.
With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.
However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?
Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.
Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.
In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.
So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.
However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.
Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.
At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.
Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.
For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.
On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.
With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.
Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.
Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.
Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success
The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.
The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.
The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.
Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.
He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.
“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”
It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.
Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.
“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”
The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.
This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.
“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”
Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.
While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.
“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”
Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.
For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.
“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”
These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.
This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.
“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”